Metal Wolf Chaos, and Why From Software Isn’t Releasing New Mech Games | Gaming News
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Cutting to the Core of the problem.
I was entirely unprepared to meet From Software’s Masanori Takeuchi. When I arrived at Devolver Digital’s Gamescom booth to see Metal Wolf Chaos – the 14-year old, Japan-only Xbox mech game about a vengeful American president – I expected to interview someone working on the current-gen port, not the producer of the 2004 original.
As I was ushered into a separate room to meet the senior managing director of quite probably the most well-respected developer in the world right now, my prepared questions about exactly how many guns I could make the mech-president shoot, and how many the mech-president could shoot all at once, seemed woefully inadequate.
I decided to wing it, and spent the next half-hour quizzing him about why mech games in general seem to have suffered something of a drought in the West recently. From a heyday that coincided nicely with my early teens, we’ve seen fewer and fewer over the years, particularly when it comes to FromSoftware, once a world leader in games about nice, big walking tanks.
Thankfully, Mr. Takeuchi is: a) broadly as upset about it as I am, b) very thoughtful on the issue and c) very kind to visibly flustered idiots who just want to play something like Armored Core 2 again.
You’re Gonna Mech Me Lonesome When You Go
It’s entirely possible you didn’t know FromSoft even had a history with mech games, which would very neatly support my point, so let’s pretend that’s the case. Before Dark Souls et al catapulted it to crossover fame, the Tokyo developer concentrated as much on giant piloted robots as it did grimdark fantasy tales. Primarily, that came through Armored Core, a series of stupefyingly complex, entirely straight-faced games that treat mech combat like science rather than fiction. Its 15 entries all offer varying takes on global factionalism, corporate sabotage, resource scarcity, and guns roughly the size of Luxembourg.
These games were hard work, both to initially parse and to play, but immensely satisfying to dive headfirst into. Some of the later entries’ approach to multiplayer (both live and asynchronous) felt potentially revolutionary, knitting together your work alone with that of other players to form a cohesive, evocative whole.
‘Wow,’ I hear you say, ‘that sounds suspiciously like every lazy summation of Dark Souls!’ And yes, there’s no doubt that From’s game design philosophies are consistent enough that I can can get away with that cheap trick. But there’s a key difference when it comes to Armored Core:
“That series was pretty successful in Japan,” says Takeuchi, “but it didn’t receive the same kind of enthusiasm in the West.”
That may be an understatement. Every major Armored Core release since 1997 has been localized for North America and Europe, but there hasn’t been a game in any territory since 2013’s Verdict Day. I can’t help but think that’s on us. The Souls games prove there’s a western market for From’s in-depth, uncompromising action games, so what is it about mechs in particular that seems to be such a hard sell?
“This is a theme that, as a game creator, I’ve been thinking about a lot over the years,” Takeuchi explains. “I talked to a lot of people, asked a lot of questions, and my point of view is that, in Japan, in robot anime, the audience perceives the robots themselves as characters, almost the same as the people in the series. So a lot of mech games are created with the concept that [the robot] is a character as well as the pilot or some other human being.
“But in the west, I feel that robots are perceived as a tool, they’re an extension of a machine. Therefore, they’re not the character, they’re just something that you control, or something that you ride on. So, a Japanese-made mech game perhaps feels weird for the western audience to play. Maybe there’s some kind of gap in the mentality.”
It’s not an enormous leap in logic to see what the next step is: “We tried to create a mech game that was more focused on the West,” Takeuchi explains. “We thought this was probably what the Western audience wants. It was Chromehounds. For the mech design and game design, we tried to focus on what we thought the American audience wanted.”
The 2006 Xbox 360 exclusive did treat its mechs like tools, a slow, strategic experience that stripped out the oddities of even the fairly grounded Armored Core in favour of straight grey-and-brown warfare. “It wasn’t a big success for us,” says Takeuchi.
It led to yet more soul-searching for the company. If neither the Japanese version of a mech game nor a westernised take on it would work abroad, what possibly could? The answer, at least for Takeuchi, seems to be about abandoning preconceptions of Western or Japanese games altogether:
“A gamer is going to buy a game because they expect or want an experience that they can only get with that game.” Predictably, his best example for that philosophy at work comes with Dark Souls. People bought From’s most famous game because it offered an entirely original experience, which then led to word of mouth about how unusual the game was, bringing in yet more players. The most interesting point for Takeuchi is the psychological effect of that originality on where players thought the game came from:
“Some Japanese players bought it and thought it was a Western-made game. But on the other side, I heard a lot of voices from the Western audience saying that this has to be a Japanese game. It’s not like we went out and said, ‘we’re going to make a game that feels like it’s from the West’. We went out and made Dark Souls, and it had that effect.”
It’s led to new thinking about how to create mech games that could succeed with overseas players: “Perhaps it’s important for us not to cater to the Western audience, but just create a game in totally Japanese mech style. But if it has an original enough experience, if you can only get that experience from that game, perhaps the western audience will catch on and support it.”
Chaos and Order
Takeuchi’s sitting on a good test case. Metal Wolf Chaos was, until recently, an odd little footnote in From’s history. Made by a separate team to that of Armored Core, it was essentially conceived by Microsoft as a way to boost the terrible sales of the original Xbox in Japan. Opening with the president boosting a mech out of the White House while shouting “OK, let’s party!”, FromSoft envisaged a wildly American game for the American console. It didn’t quite work out. No matter how good the game was (and it feels excellent, even now), Xbox just never connected with an audience in Japan, meaning sales were low. They were non-existent elsewhere – a western publisher, perhaps put off by satirical themes of terrorism or just how completely strange it all is, never emerged.
The game’s saving grace was its full (and hilarious) English voice acting and, without From particularly noticing, it went onto become a cult classic in the West. The mixture of brilliantly OTT mech gunplay and a weird brand of is-it-isn’t-it comedy led to imports fetching hundreds of dollars per copy. All of which makes it an extremely Devolver Digital-y proposition, as much in-joke as it is legitimate business proposition.
In a move I’m still not entirely convinced wasn’t influenced by alcohol and/or good vibes, the Hotline Miami publisher posted a tweet offering to help From bring Metal Wolf Chaos to modern consoles. Once the Japanese developer saw how popular that tweet became, talks between the two parties began, and the announcement of a remaster, Metal Wolf Chaos XD arrived two years later at E3 2018.
According to Kakehashi Games’ Zach Huntley, who’s working with Devolver on the project, From’s been “shocked” by quite how excited people are to play XD. But going by Takeuchi’s logic, perhaps they shouldn’t be. If not in quite the same way as Dark Souls, Metal Wolf Chaos is, above everything else, unique, and it’s built a captive audience without even being officially available outside of Japan. There’s no doubt this is an extremely Japanese game, but it’s got something others don’t (well, a few things, including a yellow blunderbuss that fires dollar bills and confetti). It could well be proof that Takeuchi’s thinking is on track.
And so it may be that a remaster of a game from 2004 is what helps spur Takeuchi and his studio onto announcing some brand new mech games to go with their old one. With Souls now an established property, it seems as though From may be ready to show us something new and, hopefully, unique.
“It’s not like we stopped making mech games,” says Takeuchi as we begin to wrap up. I feel like, after 30 minutes on a single topic, he may have learned what I want to hear. “We didn’t intentionally say that we were going to focus on the Souls games. Mech games and dark fantasy games are the two main pillars of From Software, but the game development cycle has become so long. We’re trying to readjust all our limited resources. So in an ideal world we’d keep pumping out both games, but that’s just the situation.” He pauses for a second. “But you should very strongly say you want another mech game.”
I might not have been quite prepared for our talk, but I’m more than prepared to do what Mr. Takeuchi asks. From Software, I want another mech game.